I’d like you to join me in a bit of a thought exercise.
Close your eyes. Imagine that you are at an in-person networking event (this might be in the pre-times, or once we’ve got this all sorted out). You run into someone that you’ve admired for years. A leader in their field. Someone you would go to great lengths to work with. Taking advantage of a brief moment when they are miraculously alone, you build up the courage to introduce yourself. They smile, shake your hand (again, imaginary, but I’m sure there’s sanitizer around somewhere), and ask you the inevitable question.
“What do you do?”
How do you respond? What is your answer? In one or two crisp, compelling sentences, how do you describe the role that you play, the value that you deliver, and what makes you uniquely qualified in making it happen? What do you say that is convincing enough to prompt that sought after follow-up, “That sounds interesting; tell me more?”
This is not an abstract exercise. It is also not an easy one. Coming up with a clear, attractive, meaningful answer is hard.
If I’m in a casual conversation where I’m not trying to encourage this conversation, I will usually opt for something imprecise and relatively boring. “Oh, I’m a management consultant” is usually abstract and evasive enough as to discourage follow-up questioning. (Usually, but not always).
Where it becomes more challenging is when I am striving to give an answer that is meaningful and relevant. As I progress in my career, this is something that has become harder, not easier.
Our attempt to define ourselves usually starts with a fairly functional view. We lead with a description of what we do. As a consequence, you might describe your job as a project manager. A data analyst. A computer programmer. An architect. You might be a supply chain manager. A logistics specialist. A product manager. An engineering technologist.
While those might be the words that appear on your business card, they don’t telegraph a lot about you and your capabilities. They will mean most to people already familiar to your line of work. Even then, the terms are nebulous enough to possibly be applicable to a variety of roles. To be a logistics specialist might mean everything from a truck dispatcher to a warehouse supervisor to managing commercial importations and customs clearance. The terms are broad, and clarification is necessary.
Creating clarity is usually the result of building in some degree of specialization. You might be a Cobol programmer, for example (which right now means that you can make a ridiculously impressive hourly rate maintaining increasingly legacy systems). The qualifications for computer programmers might range from the language you use to the types applications you support to the level of granularity you write code for, from user interfaces all the way down to machine code. Architecture ranges from commercial to industrial to residential and beyond; you might design spaces or buildings or infrastructure. You might specialize in new construction, renovation or restoration. You might even be an “extreme” architect, designing for extreme climates with highly problematic constraints.
Further clarification might be created by defining the industry that you support, or a specific country or region that you deliver services for.
In all of these instances, what we are doing is creating a progressively refined means of categorization. We are defining a niche, certainly, but it is a niche that is still framed by what you do. You might describe yourself as an agile project manager of enterprise software projects for post-secondary institutions. On the surface of it, that sounds really precise. You have circumscribed what you do in a way that excludes a huge array of other projects. But the intersection of all those circles on a Venn diagram will still have thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of other people at its core.
Some professions and roles have more challenges than others in this exercise, simply because of the words used to describe them. My role over time, for example, has become increasingly more strategic in nature. I facilitate developing strategic plans, and all of the other downstream plans they produce. I create strategic frameworks that supporting on-going managing and reporting of strategic plans, and the projects that they spawn. I get involved in solving big, complex, messy, strategic problems within organizations. “Strategic problem solver” might be a role—and it is certainly one that I perform—but frankly it shows up far more often as a skillset on resumes, right along with “innovative thinker” and “visionary leader.”
The use of the word “strategic” here becomes highly problematic. While talking about strategic plans (or strategic problems) should be clarifying, it is often anything but. The interpretation of the term “strategic” has been torqued to mean important, significant, special, advanced, expert or insightful (and in reality probably all of these interpretations and more, all at once). The consequence is that the word gets slapped in front of numerous descriptors and labels, in the hopes of conveying depth and gravitas. You have strategic communications, strategic marketing, strategic web development, strategic analysis, strategic design and even strategic execution. The challenge is that when everything is strategic, nothing is strategic.
Even the term “strategic plan” gets broadly (mis)applied these days. Rather than describing the directional intent of an entire organization, there are now “divisional strategic plans” and “departmental strategic plans.” What would normally be framed as a business plan or operational plan has now become strategic instead. That in no way changes the content of what is being produced; it’s simply a change of descriptor on the front page. Municipal master plans for individual service areas are now being given the moniker.
That creates some significant challenges in thinking about how to describe work and working at the fuzzy front end of organizational functioning. It also creates some challenges when you are trying to describe what you do when this is your job. I might say that I am a strategic planner, or that I implement strategic frameworks or create strategic management processes. While I might specifically be intending this to reference the work of defining, sustaining and delivering on an organization’s future intent, what it often gets perceived as is a self-important description of work that more properly exists lower down the food chain.
Certainly, there is a need to take back or at least clarify what is and should be meant as “strategic.” That is a matter for another post. What we do need to do, though, is find different language for explaining roles and contributions that make them vivid and real. To a certain extent, that involves tackling and reinterpreting the question we started this piece with.
What everything we have discussed so far outlines is an honest attempt to answer the question at face value. Asking, “What do you do?” prompts a functional description. It is exploring the work, not the meaning of the work. A far more interesting question to ask would be, “Why do you do what you do?” Rather than asking about the job, you are beginning to explore what is meaningful and relevant to the person in the job. You are getting at motive and drive and essential purpose. There are fascinating discussions to be had there, and profound insights as well.
You could also ask, “What’s the contribution that you make?” Rather than exploring the functional role, this question asks about the work’s impact. This is a question of value delivered and differences made, not job functions performed. It’s a hard question to answer. There are times, I suspect, that people will find the response uncomfortable or disconcerting. If it is not a question that they have given thought or consideration to, there response might be, “I’m not really sure.” Or worse.
A third question might be, “What are the principles that animate your work?” This again gets at the person, rather than the role. It is still about the role, of course, but what it asks is how that person shows up in their work. It demands that someone consider and explore the values that are most important to them in doing their job. These are the statements of truth that for them are most essential to doing their job well.
Asking these questions, and asking these questions this way, is not just about trying to get you to confront difficult truths (whether about yourself, or about others). It is about finding genuine, meaningful relevant answers to the spirit—if not the letter—of the question being asked.
If you want to set yourself apart and stand out to that person you admire, to spark conversation and perhaps even explore whether there might be opportunity with them, then you need a compelling response. You need to be able to inspire interest and spark curiosity. These are questions whose answers will help you to get there.
Let’s start with a consideration of why someone does what they do. For me, why I do what I do is multi-faceted. I genuinely thrive on making a difference in people’s lives. I also get excited by the idea of solving big, complex and messy problems that don’t particularly have a precedent. I get a rush from helping to find clarity and direction and a meaningful—if at times still tenuous—path forward. Finding appropriate ways to take action where before there was a void of confusion can be a powerful experience. While the “what” in play might be strategic planning or problem solving, the “why” is all about guiding the creation of significant insights and finding of relevant solutions.
Exploring the contribution someone makes is an interesting challenge. It can be difficult to define, at least in overtly obvious terms. There are few roles so directly connected and narrowly defined that someone can claim sole ownership of enhancing profitability, increasing sales or retaining customers (even though these are the kind of statements and metrics we are continuously exhorted to look for). Value is usually much more indirect. That’s not to say that value can’t be understood, but it is usually explored in narrative form.
I would see the value that I deliver, for example, as helping to create clarity. I do that not just by helping to explore uncertainty, but also by holding open the space (and hanging on to all of the pieces) that allow uncertainty to exist, allowing aspects and issues to be explored without being overwhelmed by the whole. I create value through structure and process. I examine what already exists and is relevant, and what can appropriately be built upon to move an organization forward. The value that I deliver is realistic solutions that can be accepted and used, and allow people to be more successful than what they experienced previously.
Understanding values can be a complicated exercise to initially explore. For me, they have emerged over several years of consulting. They are hard-won and fiercely protected statements of truth that go a long way to uniquely defining me and the work that I do. I’m not beholden to any particular ideology, specific approach or particular tool. I don’t believe in best practices, I deliver solutions that work, where what works best will be unique and specific to a given organization. What works needs to build on what is already in place, and move an organization positively forward. Finding this solution needs to be approached collaboratively and can’t just be imposed. Implementing what works means people understand and accept the solution, and can see themselves being more successful going forward than what they have in place today.
Where prospective clients find my values to be resonant, there is going to be a strong likelihood that we will be able to work together, and do so well. Where there is disagreement with them, that represents a tremendous early sign that I am the wrong consultant for them (and they are likely the wrong client for me). It’s worth remembering that you will not—and you should not—appeal equally to all people. Defining your personal and unique value proposition—the real answer to “what is it that you do?”—is going go attract some and repel others. That is the point, and it is the desired outcome. In all instances, defining why I do what I do, the value that I deliver and the principles that I hold provides a great deal more clarity than just saying “I build strategic plans.”
Getting to a clear articulation of my value proposition is a journey that I have on recently myself. Where I have arrived at currently is, “I guide executive teams in attaining organizational success in the face of radical uncertainty. We collaboratively build actionable plans and relevant solutions that are uniquely tailored to their situation and their culture.” While it may yet evolve, it is a landing point that better reflects the essence of what I do.
Own who you are. Be clear about the value that you deliver. Understand the principles that most animate the work that you do. Let that be what your work stands for. Leave the functional descriptions to others, and proclaim what it is that makes you unique.